Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Sunday at Mill Valley Film Festival. Amazingly, I was actually in Mill Valley.

Here’s what I saw:

The 3D Sideshow

3D enthusiast and filmmaker Robert G. Bloomberg introduced this selection of shorts with a trailer to a 50′s 3D movie called The Maze. He followed this with his own Frogs & Friends–a selection of (mostly) still images of wildlife–often very tiny insects.

That one was wonderful, but the best movie in the show was unquestionably Jason Jameson and James Hall’s One Night in Hell. Stylistically Victorian, yet with a modern sense of humor, it followed Satan on his rounds, using the 3D for very funny effects.

I also liked Jeff Boller’s rock video, A Geek Like Me.

A Geek Like Me

Some of the shorts were pre-3D. They screened Georges Méliès’ The Infernal Cauldron, accidentally shot in 3D (I’ve already described how that happened). Also included: a colorized and 3D-converted version of the Safely Last climax; it was hilarious–almost as funny as the 2D, black-and-white original. And one of the two Disney shorts in the show started as an old, early, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon that exploded into widescreen, color, and 3D.

Speaking of big names, Fox provided a Simpson’s cartoon of Maggie in the world’s worst daycare.

In Order of Disappearance

Local Citizen of the Year Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is a peaceful man. But when his son turns up dead from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t using drugs, our hero sets out to make the bad guys pay. I’m not really a fan of revenge thrillers, and this one is exceptionally violent, both in the body count and in the gruesome nature of the deaths. But a strong sense of absurd humor helps the violence go down easily. When was the last time you saw a movie where the horrifically evil organized crime boss is also a high-strung vegan? A sick, twisted, yet entertaining thriller from Norway.

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I’m giving this film a B+, and can recommend it to anyone who likes dark and gruesome humor. Unfortunately, you’ll likely never get a chance to see it, as it’s not expected to get an American release.

Wild

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short.

After the short, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, who introduced one of the stars of the film, Laura Dern. Dern actually has a relatively small role in the picture, but the event was in her honor.

Elton interviewed Dern for a few minutes about being a second-generation actor and the people she’s worked with.

Then they screened the film.

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Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that tell us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

It’s a powerful film, and I’m giving it an A. It opens later this year.

MVFF: A Bridge to a Border

Saturday afternoon, I made it to the Rafael for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Rob Nilsson’s A Bridge to a Border. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked that film if I had recognized the director’s name. Two years ago I caught his Maelstrom, and hated it.

I’m glad to say that A Bridge to a Border is nowhere near as bad as Maelstrom. This time around, the characters seem vaguely interesting, and are actually involved in trying to do something. It even gets exciting near the end. I’d give it a C+.

This time around, a quarrelsome group of left-wing terrorists plan to blow up the Bay Bridge. Why? I’m not sure. There’s some talk about how successful the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers had been, and how pathetically the Occupy Movement failed.

Because it’s a Rob Nilsson film, there’s a lot of semi-improvised dialog, much of which goes nowhere. Occasionally the dialog succeeds to letting us know something about the the characters, but not often. We get to know what turned some of them into violent radicals, but others are left as cyphers. Things pick up near the end, and the climax kind of works.

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After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A with Nilsson and members of his cast. Some highlights:

  • Nilsson said the film was made not so much with money but by  "people power."
  • The climactic scene on the Bridge was done with a green screen.
  • Someone asked about Nilsson’s unique approach to working with actors (who he prefers to call players). He runs a workshop where people work on relaxation and concentration. "We try to find the places inside ourselves"
  • "We do a lot of backstory improvisation."

Addition, 10/13: I just discovered that A Bridge to a Border) is available on Fandor. So if you want to see it yourself, you can stream it.

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part II

Since I wrote Part 1, I’ve managed to see three additional movies that will screen at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order of best to worst.

A Hide and Seek 
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Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with who each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

  • Sequoia, Saturday October 4, 3:00
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 3:30

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela
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For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this is yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their music and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear the music itself in brief snatches, much of it as basic movie background music. You never hear a song all the way through, and get only quick glimpses of what makes these two worth being the subject of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it should always have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 8:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15

C Tu Dors Nicole
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Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 10, 3:45
  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 8:45

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
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A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
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In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

The California Film Institute today announced the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival–which, as usual, doesn’t stay in Mill Valley. Major events will take place in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

This festival provides the Bay Area with our first look at this year’s Oscar bait. Consider this: For the last four years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its local premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That’s The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Year a Slave.

The festival runs in early October, from the 2nd to the 12th of that month. Those are problematic dates for practicing Jews like myself. Yom Kippur will make the first two full days of the festival impossible. It also interferes with the festival of Sukkot. But for most people, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Some highlights:

  • Following Mill Valley tradition, the festival will launch with two opening night films in different theaters. The Homesman is an "anti-western" written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. The other opening night film, Men, Women and Children, has an ensemble cast and was directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Amongst the performers and filmmakers being celebrated with spotlights and honors are Eddie Redmayne (who plays a young Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything), Elle Fanning (although, in my opinion, a 16-year-old is a little young for a life achievement award), the talented documentarian and clip editor Chuck Workman, and the late Robin Williams (that event will be free, but tickets will still be required).
  • Classic movies will include The Empire Strikes Back and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these will be screened at the Century Cinema Corte Madera, which has one of the largest screens in the Bay Area.
  • The Centerpiece film will be Mike Binder’s Black and White. It’s about race, not photography.
  • Technology and cinema come together in the Amazing 4K Film Showcase, a competition of short films shot in ultra-high definition. These will screen at the CinéArts@Sequoia, since the Rafael does not yet have 4K projection.
  • As always, the Festival offers selections of films built around a genre or theme. This year, they’re calling one such focus Humor – In the Jocular Vein (as I write this, that link is dead, but hopefully it won’t be for long). This will include What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy from New Zealand, and the Croatian comedy Cowboys,
  • Only one picture, the Japanese drama The Little House, will be screened in 35mm. Everything else will be digital.
  • The festival will end with Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who will be in attendance. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made The Dallas Buyers Club.

As I write this, I’ve seen one new film screening at the festival, Two Days, One Night. I’ll tell you about it, and about other films I can preview, before the festival opens.

Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

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After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

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12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.

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